Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Season 1, Episode 7: “Breakdown”
Original airdate: Nov. 13, 1955
Nirajan: The winds of change are blowing as we embark on the next chapter of our Roundtable Review series.
Firstly, while Cory Barker will be taking a brief hiatus, we’ve enlisted the expertise of two esteemed writers from This Was Television to step in for him: Muskan Ghimire, the talented author behind our weekly Beauty and the Beast reviews every Friday, and Sidant, known for his monthly feature, Same As It Ever Was?. Muskan and Sidant, a warm welcome to both of you.
Secondly, as we did with Taxi and Blackadder, our October Roundtable will revolve around a central theme instead of delving into a single series.
Over the course of the next four weeks, we’ll be immersing ourselves in horror and suspense programs in celebration of Halloween, of course. We will discuss how this particularly complex genre has been portrayed on television.
As an art form, horror often seeks to delve into the unique anxieties that a culture or era faces. On the other hand, television has typically aimed at soothing or shielding its audience from those anxieties, offering a safe haven to escape the world’s troubles.
How does this inherent tension affect television’s capacity to deliver spine-tingling experiences with an underlying layer of significance effectively?
For many reasons, it’s apt that we explore this subject with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, an anthology series conceived and hosted by the master of suspense himself, although he rarely directed it.
One notable reason is that this week commemorates the 57th anniversary of the show’s premiere. More significantly, the episode we’re focusing on, “Breakdown,” revolves around a premise that weaves together a medley of universal human fears.
Joseph Cotten portrays a man left paralyzed after a car accident – his mind functions normally, evident from the internal monologue accompanying the storyline, but his body remains unresponsive, leading others to presume he’s lifeless.
Without a means to communicate, he faces the grim prospect of being treated as a cadaver, complete with all the grim consequences of such treatment, including autopsy and burial.
The narrative encapsulates the primal, fundamental fears of a person trapped within their own body: the profound isolation from humanity, the absence of even a modicum of control over one’s life and surroundings, the total forfeiture of freedom, and the awareness not only of impending death but of the inevitable physical deterioration that precedes it.
Virtually every fear or anxiety we experience can be traced back to one or more of these sources. Throughout the episode, Cotten progressively confronts each of these fears, one by one, with an escalating terror expertly conveyed solely through his off-screen narration.
The disparity between his words and his calm countenance introduces an additional layer of disquiet. We begin projecting our sympathetic fears onto his features, especially his unblinking eyes, even though they remain motionless.
“Breakdown” is a comprehensive exploration of all the elements that shake and paralyze the essence of human existence. What better way to commence a discussion about the diverse facets of TV horror?
Also Read: Roundtable Review: Airwolf, “Fallen Angel”
Sidant: One of the most astute choices made in “Breakdown” – and it’s genuinely brilliant – is the unsympathetic introduction of Joseph Cotten. In a narrative like this, the initial inclination might be to portray the protagonist as an ordinary, relatable figure, but not in this case.
We encounter him as he lounges on a beach, clad in a bathrobe, nonchalantly dismissing an employee over the phone. When the unfortunately dismissed accountant starts openly weeping and pleading, Cotten abruptly terminates the call.
This sets the stage for the ironic twist at the end – a man so averse to human emotion is ultimately rescued when he, too, succumbs to tears. However, it also unequivocally communicates to the audience that this is far from a likable character.
I don’t have much familiarity with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but I do recall stories that commence much like this: someone commits a transgression, another person seeks revenge, and there’s typically a twist ending involved.
So, after the opening, I anticipated a tale in which the sorrowful accountant sought retribution against Cotten.
What unfolds instead is genuinely disquieting, and I believe that making the protagonist a morally flawed character amplifies the unsettling nature of the narrative.
Yes, he’s unpleasant, but even he doesn’t deserve the horrors that befall him. It evokes a sense of Poe, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels to “The Cask of Amontillado” during the scenes where various thugs appear to pilfer his belongings and strip his car.
In my view, this is where television horror excels. TV budgets often struggle to get monsters just right, and it’s not easy to frighten someone when they’re comfortably seated on their own couch.
However, where television can truly engage an audience is through discomfort – creating a situation so unsettling and distressing that viewers wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, not even a man who terminates employees while lounging in his bathrobe.
(While I’m typing, I want to express my gratitude for allowing me to participate in this Roundtable!)
Muskan: I believe it’s significant that Hitchcock himself directed this episode.
He has always held a fascination for powerful men brought low, whether through circumstances beyond their control, as seen with Cary Grant stumbling into an international conspiracy in North by Northwest, or due to their own vulnerabilities, like James Stewart’s curiosity leading him astray in Rear Window.
In “Breakdown,” this theme is masterfully condensed for television – this man will be punished, and perhaps, he deserves it.
However, I also think Hitchcock displayed more empathy towards his male protagonists. Cotten will undergo an ordeal, but he will ultimately be rescued.
There’s no shower stall at the Bates Motel in his future. Yet, as others have pointed out, there’s a wonderfully dreadful universality to what befalls him. We all fear losing control, compounded by the stark realization of how little control we truly have.
I appreciate how the locals and the individuals who strip Cotten’s car and clothes aren’t particularly pleasant either. It would have been too simplistic to depict them as saintly small-town folks pitted against Cotten, the big-city dealer. That’s just life, though.
You never know who might come to your rescue, or what, for that matter – much like Cotten’s final surrender to helplessness inadvertently revealing that he’s still alive and possesses a beating heart.
(And I’d also like to express my gratitude for the invitation!)
Naveen: That was fantastic. If I had the time, I’d binge-watch this series for more brief, captivating, and thrilling moments. Curse you, fall TV season!
You’ve all touched on why the episode generates fear. For me, it’s the small details that really get under your skin.
Yes, none of the people who encounter Cotten assist him, but his elation at being able to move his finger is initially thwarted by the noise of the engines drowning out his tapping and then by the position in which the morgue workers have placed him, trapping his hand beneath his body.
It’s agonizing because these minor elements conspire against Cotten rather than big, terrifying forces.
Mundane things nearly annihilate him, and that’s what’s truly terrifying about the narrative. I’m saying that Ryan Murphy could take a few lessons from this.
Speaking of Murphy, and since we’ve only briefly touched on anthology shows here, I want to express my admiration for Hitchcock’s presence as the host during the episode.
His persona shines brightly in this role – witty, macabre, and charming. It makes me yearn for the days of the anthology show host.
Can you imagine Murphy delivering brief introductions for American Horror Story? While I’m not a fan of Murphy on TV, I think I’d take some pleasure in watching him frame his own work on a weekly basis. If you’re an anthology show, why not go all the way?
Kriti: Well, that was a close call. I haven’t had the opportunity to delve into Hitchcock’s work as much as I’d like (I honestly can’t recall the last time I watched any of his films), but like you, Naveen, this has me eager to explore as much as possible, thanks to the man’s sardonic hosting that beautifully bookends this frankly fantastic story.
I’m a huge fan of “Time Enough at Last,” one of the most iconic Twilight Zone episodes, and this episode brilliantly delves into the same themes of isolation that constitute the essence of psychological horror.
Cotten does an exceptional job, maintaining his stoic countenance while conveying the escalating desperation as each opportunity to save himself slips away.
The camera’s ability to draw ever closer to his paralyzed face highlights Hitchcock’s remarkable talent as a director.
Sidant, you mentioned the Poe-esque vibe from the convicts taking his belongings, but the feeling I got was less “Amontillado” and more “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Cotten’s tapping with his one functioning finger initially served as his only means of self-expression and comfort but gradually took on a foreboding repetition as the camera panned up to unveil the night sky.
The revelation that his hand was pinned beneath his body was timed dramatically and was particularly effective, especially considering the time Cotten spent emphasizing it as the one thing that could save him.
I must confess; I was surprised that Cotten survived the episode. It felt in line with those stories where we conclude on a profoundly dark note, where the protagonist’s fear of being buried alive becomes a reality.
And even though that doesn’t occur, the tension of the event never entirely dissipates until the end when he comes back to life in a manner that beautifully harkens back to the warning he received at the episode’s outset.
It’s truly a remarkable piece of psychological horror and an excellent beginning to this new format for our roundtable. I’m eagerly anticipating our discussions on literal horror this month.